Research experts read two kinds of ways about big subjects, says the MacArthur-Award winning sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom: 1) what she calls census reading, straightforward reading about the facts of a subject, and 2) reading around, which goes “beyond the object of study to unpack, examine, or pick apart what the person or the object of study represents.”
That second kind of reading, McMillan Cottom argues, is where the good stuff is — and not doing it is “like cracking open a crab leg and not being able to get at all the good gristly parts in the far reaches of the crab knuckle,” she writes. “I hate it when people leave all that meat behind.” So dig in!
Take McMillan Cottom’s project on Dolly Parton. Census reading on Parton would be doing all the reading about who Dolly Parton is and has been. Reading around about Parton would be reading all the books and articles about what Dolly Parton represents, about why Dolly Parton became the icon “Dolly Parton.” Being able to answer those questions requires more than reading the history of the person. It requires that you read about, say, gender and celebrity and blondness in Southern culture and history, as McMillan Cottom has done.
Another way to think about reading around: It’s reading that helps you see through “the facts” of something to the broader connections and structures hidden beneath. When you read around, you’re trying to pin down the meaning of something — either finding it as you read around or building the foundation for writing about that meaning yourself.
That, of course, is also the project of public scholarship.
Contextual reading is a classic scholarly approach. But “finish the reading around” is a recipe to produce only one kind of public scholarship and engagement — one best iterated in books or long essays. And I’m concerned that scholars who use McMillan Cottom’s framing without her talent will restrict themselves to public scholarship that feels an awful lot like scholarship.
Another approach: Iterate your public scholarship and engagement frequently as the stream of the world collides with your reading around and the POVs you’ve fashioned from it.
When do you have a POV? McMillan Cottom says: After you’ve finished your reading around. She opens her two-kinds-of-reading essay by saying she’s never had writer’s block — she’s just not yet had anything to say, which “means I am not done reading.”
Notice, though, that when McMillan Cottom is reading around about Dolly Parton, she isn’t reading randomly. She has specific takes — broadly speaking, that Parton has something to do with whiteness and womanhood and country music. She’s already got a hypothesis, a nascent POV that she’s testing. There’s nothing wrong with that — you have to have a general direction. But McMillan Cottom writes on Medium, has a podcast and, as she likes to remind us, is good at Twitter. She has plenty of POVs and arguments.
Academics get fooled into thinking they have to finish both the census reading and all the reading around before they can venture an opinion. But, as Daniel Swain told me on the podcast last year, “I think most scientists actually know more about more things than they’re willing to give themselves credit for.”
If you wonder why a colleague like McMillan Cottom doesn’t have writer’s block and gets so much public scholarship done, it’s not because they’re waiting for their reading around to produce a POV. It’s more likely because they’re expressing the ones their reading around has already forged.